How to Become an APRN

Joelle Y. Jean, FNP-C, BSN, RN
Updated June 13, 2024
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Learn how to become an advanced practice registered nurse and advance your nursing career.
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Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) have at least a master of science in nursing (MSN) degree and an APRN license. Unlike traditional nurses, these speciality-trained healthcare providers can diagnose and treat conditions.

Because of their expertise, APRNs have more professional autonomy and career options than registered nurses, including working as primary or acute care providers. They can also specialize in working with specific populations, such as older people and pediatric or pregnant patients.

Explore this guide for an overview of the educational requirements, specializations, licensure and certification qualifications, and career outlook for APRNs.

How Long to Become

6-8 years

Degree Required



APRN Specialty Certification

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What Is an APRN?

APRNs are healthcare providers. Their general scope of practice includes assessing, diagnosing, and treating illnesses; providing education on various health issues and preventative care; helping patients and families understand and manage diseases; and staying current on the latest treatments and medical knowledge.

An APRN is the umbrella term for four types of nurses with a master’s degree or doctoral degree. The four types of APRN specialties include:

  1. Certified nurse-midwife (CNM)
  2. Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
  3. Nurse practitioner (NP)
  4. Clinical nurse specialist (CNS)

These specialties offer various APRN career options.

To obtain a license in one of these specialty roles, nurses must complete undergraduate and graduate coursework and a specific number of clinical practice hours.

The level of autonomy depends on the state in which APRNs practice. Laws in full-practice states allow APRNs to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medication without physician oversight. Those in reduced-access states require physician oversight when prescribing medication. Restricted-access states require complete physician oversight.

APRNs can work in a variety of settings. Most work in primary care and hospital settings, but some work in rural and underserved areas. Some may even travel or pick up locum tenens shifts, allowing them to work in different settings for a certain amount of shifts.

Steps to Becoming an APRN

Before becoming an APRN, nurses need to fulfill certain requirements. These include earning an undergraduate and graduate degree, passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and other necessary certification exams, gaining clinical experience, and passing a national APRN certification exam based on the specialty.

Employers may require RNs to obtain basic life support (BLS) or advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) certifications.

While specific criteria regarding licensure and experience may differ depending on location and school, the basic requirements remain similar.

  1. 1

    Earn a BSN Degree From an Accredited Program

    Nurses must earn a BSN before enrolling in a graduate program. Students who attend class full-time can earn their BSN in four years.

    While registered nurses (RN) with an associate degree in nursing (ADN) can become APRNs, they would first need to enroll in an RN-to-BSN degree program. This program allows them to earn their bachelor’s in two years rather than four.

    Prospective nurses with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field can enroll in an accelerated BSN program, allowing them to earn their nursing degree in as little as 12-15 months.

  2. 2

    Pass the NCLEX Exam to Receive RN Licensure

    The New Generation NCLEX exam, launched in April 2023, emphasizes prospective nurses’ clinical judgment and decision-making skills. It also tests nurses’ ability to apply knowledge and analyze real-world scenarios rather than simply recall information.

  3. 3

    Gain Clinical Nursing Experience

    Most APRN graduate programs require applicants to have at least 1-2 years of nursing experience. However, some programs do not require it.

    New graduate nurses can apply, but gaining hands-on experiences and practical skills is always helpful before applying to an APRN graduate program.

    The experience needed to become an APRN varies depending on the institution and the applicant’s educational background. It also depends on the specialty they want to pursue.

  4. 4

    Earn Your Graduate Degree from an APRN Program

    To become an APRN, RNs can either pursue an MSN, which typically takes two years to complete, or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP), which takes about 2-4 years.

    Nurses with an ADN can pursue an RN-to-MSN bridge program, allowing them to earn their MSN in less time than it would take to pursue a BSN and an MSN individually.

    Prospective APRNs with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field can enroll in a direct-entry MSN program and earn their master’s degree in 18-36 months.

  5. 5

    Pass a National APRN Certification Exam

    To become a certified APRN, nurses must pass a national certification exam based on their specialty.

    After passing the appropriate APRN exam, nurses can apply for their license in the state where they wish to practice. While every state requires certification before becoming licensed, some other requirements may vary from one state to the next.

APRN Education

Becoming an APRN requires nurses to earn an advanced education. APRNs have a BSN and an MSN or a DNP. An MSN is the minimum degree requirement to become a certified and licensed APRN.

Earning a BSN and an MSN typically takes six years of schooling for full-time students. Pursuing a DNP or a similar doctoral degree can add 2-3 years.

RNs with an ADN can enroll in an RN-MSN nursing bridge program to earn their MSN without spending four years obtaining a BSN. Prospective APRNs with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field can enroll in a direct-entry program and earn their MSN in 18-36 months.

Nurses who choose a direct-entry pathway can expect to complete the BSN curriculum within their first year, allowing them to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam to become licensed registered nurses. The program’s second half is dedicated to the MSN curriculum, including clinicals.

MSN Degree

An MSN is the minimum degree needed to become an APRN. Applicants must complete an accredited BSN program and should have some clinical experience. Within an MSN-APRN program, students pursue one of four nurse specialties: CNM, CRNA, CNS, or NP.

  • Admission Requirements: BSN; minimum 3.0 GPA; active RN license; one year or more of clinical experience
  • Program Curriculum: Epidemiology; nursing ethics; pharmacology; pathophysiology; health assessment; specialty-based courses
  • Time to Complete: 18-36 months (for full-time students with a BSN)
  • Skills Learned: Diagnose illnesses; prescribe medication; order, complete, and analyze tests; communicate with patients and colleagues; work collaboratively; practice in a clinical setting; educate on prevention and wellness.

DNP Degree

Prospective APRNs can enroll in a DNP program instead of an MSN. While MSN and DNP programs are somewhat similar, DNP graduates can have higher earning potential, increased responsibility, and an expanded nursing leadership role.

Nurses who pursue a DNP should expect to spend an additional 2-3 years in school. A DNP or a doctor of nurse anesthesia practice (DNAP) is the minimum degree required to become a CRNA.

  • Admission Requirements: BSN; minimum 3.0 GPA; active RN license; one year or more of clinical experience
  • Program Curriculum: Biostatistics; pathophysiology/physiology; research- and evidence-based practice; clinical pharmacology; project planning and proposal development; management and data analysis; healthcare policy; specialty-based courses
  • Time to Complete: 3-4 years
  • Skills Learned: Practice as independent practitioners; use evidenced-based care; carry out new strategies and policies; develop healthcare research projects; work collaboratively, practice in a clinical setting; educate on prevention and wellness.

APRN Licensure and Certification

APRN licensure and certification are two separate requirements for nurses pursuing advanced education.

To get a license as an APRN, nurses must earn a BSN, pass the NCLEX, and become licensed RNs before applying to a graduate program. Various organizations provide exams to become certified as CNM, CNS, CRNA, or NP.

After completing their MSN or DNP program requirements, APRNs receive state licensure. It is a legal requirement to practice with a license as an APRN.

APRNs typically obtain certification after passing their state board exam. However, every state has a different process, so check with your state board.

Types of APRN Certification Boards

Every APRN program has a specific credentialing body that certifies APRNs. The organizations provide an overview of the exams along with study materials.

While not exhaustive, the following organizations provide nurses with certification options.

The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

The ANCC is the largest certification board for APRNs, providing certification mostly for NPs. The ANCC offers the following certifications:

  • Family NPs
  • Adult-gerontology acute care NPs
  • Adult-gerontology primary acute NPs
  • Psychiatric-mental health NPs
  • Adult-gerontology CNSs

The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB)

The AANPCB is the second-largest nonprofit certification organization for APRNs.They offer five certification exams in some of the most popular nurse practitioner specialties. These include:

  • Adult NPs
  • Emergency NPs
  • Adult-gerontology primary care NPs
  • Gerontologic NPs
  • Family NPs

National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA)

The NBCRNA offers initial certification for APRNs who specialize in anesthesiology. CRNAs must complete 100 continuing education credits and four modules every four years to renew their license.

The American Midwifery Certification Board (AMCB)

CNMs earn their certification from the AMCB after earning an MSN or a DNP from an accredited nurse-midwifery program and passing the certification exam. To renew their certification, nurses must complete three AMCB modules and 20 contact hours every five years.

The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN)

The AACN offers several acute care certifications for clinical nurse specialists and NPs. To renew, AACN requires nurses to complete 100 clinical education credits and 432 hours in direct care. AACN offers the following certifications:

  • Adult-Gerontology CNSs
  • Pediatrics CNSs
  • Neonatal CNSs
  • Adult acute critical care CNSs
  • Pediatric acute critical care CNSs
  • Neonatal acute critical care CNSs
  • Adult-gerontology acute care NPs
  • Adult acute care NPs

Once licensed and certified, nurses must renew their RN and APRN licenses throughout their careers. Although each state’s renewal guidelines vary, most require a certain number of clinical and/or continuing education hours.

RN licenses must be renewed every two years, while renewal requirements for APRN licenses vary by state. Check your state’s licensing board for specific deadlines and requirements.

Working as an APRN

An APRN’s level of autonomy varies depending on where they work. The state in which the APRN practices mandates independent or supervised practice.

For example, states allow for either full-practice, reduced-access, or restricted-access NP authority for NPs. Full practice allows NPs to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medication without physician oversight. Reduced access requires physician oversight for some of the APRN’s practices. Restricted access means a physician directly oversees the APRN on diagnosis, treatment, and prescribing.

APRNs benefit from a high earning potential. For example, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) has reported that all NPs earn a median annual salary of $129,480. In comparison, CNSs earn $212,650 — the highest median salary for NPs.

The BLS also projects a whopping 38% increase in employment for APRNs from 2022 to 2032, far higher than the national average.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming an APRN

Becoming an APRN can be a worthwhile investment in a nurse’s career. According to the BLS, APRNs earn an average salary of $128,490 per year. APRNs will also benefit from high demand due to the national nursing shortage.

Page last reviewed on June 4, 2024